Here’s Why Celia Cruz and Julia Alvarez Barbies Matter

By Karina Margit Erdelyi

Photo: Mattel/Barbie

We hope they decide to bring the Celia Cruz and Julia Álvarez Barbies to market, because the Hispanic community deserves to see themselves represented beyond the tokenism of a one-of-a-kind doll.

Say hello to two new iconic Barbies: Celia Cruz, Afro-Cuban Queen of Salsa, and Julia Alvarez, lauded Dominican-American activist, author, and poet.

These one-of-a-kind role model muñecas were released by Mattel this September 15 in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month — just one example of a broad effort by toy companies to be more inclusive. And Barbie, long criticized for presenting girls with an unrealistic ideal of the female body, has been helping lead the charge towards greater inclusivity. In 2019, Mattel introduced a line of gender-neutral dolls called Creatable World, which are customizable and not limited by gender.

Companies that ignore diversity and inclusivity do so at their peril. Research conducted by Mintel, a marketing research company, shows that nearly nine in ten parents worry about the world in which their children are growing up. If they can help bridge some of the myriad divides that exist by getting toys their kids can relate to, it’s something they are willing to pay for.

Let’s take a look at the legendary icons who Mattel chose to honor.

Celia Cruz

Celia Cruz, “La Guarachera de Cuba,” is a symbol of Cuban and Latin culture and was a pioneer of Afro-Latinidad. She was known as the “Latin Triple Threat” — a powerful stage performer, on-screen actor, and musical recording sensation who managed to find immense success in the male-dominated music scene.

“Her long and storied career serves as an endless inspiration for aspiring musicians. Through the Celia Cruz Foundation, her legacy continues to provide scholarships for young Latino students,” Barbie said on Instagram.

Born in 1925 in Havana, Cruz was one of an extended family of 14. After winning a talent show and making a name for herself, she quit school to go after her dream of making it big in music.

In 1950, Cruz became the first Black woman to be the lead singer of the famed La Sonora Matancera orchestra. But despite the group’s success in radio and film, when nightlife evaporated after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Cruz had to migrate. She first went to Mexico before landing in the United States, where she found fame by becoming part of the salsa music scene of the early 1970s.

The Queen of Salsa is famed for her opera-like voice, flamboyant costumes, brightly colored wigs, and higher-than-high heels. Cruz won three Grammys and four Latin Grammy awards and has been the subject of numerous films and documentaries. She passed away in 2003 from brain cancer. Her autobiography was published posthumously in 2004, and just this year, a street in the Bronx was named after her.

Julia Àlvarez

Award-winning multi-hyphenate Dominican-American author, educator, and activist Julia Álvarez is the other icon Mattel is celebrating. Born in New York City in 1950, she spent the first ten years of her life in the Dominican Republic, until her father’s involvement in a failed political rebellion forced her family to flee their country back to New York.

“Julia Álvarez is an award-winning Dominican-American writer, educator, and activist, whose vast body of work explores multicultural themes as they relate to children and adults alike,” Barbie wrote on Instagram.

Much of Álvarez’s work has been influenced by her experience as a Dominican-American. She is known for closely examining cultural expectations of women both here in the United States and the Dominican Republic and taking a penetrating look at cultural stereotypes.

Álvarez rose to prominence with the novels How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), and Yo! (1997). Many literary critics consider her one of the most significant Latina writers due to her widespread international commercial success, and her preeminence was entrenched when President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts in 2013.

Representation matters for those of Hispanic and Latinx origin, perhaps now more than ever.

The Census Bureau projects that by 2060, one in three women will be Hispanic in the United States. Mattel likely hoped to be heralded for their effort to be more representational by creating these two Barbies, but this may have backfired. Many have taken to social media to decry what they see as an empty gesture and well-timed publicity stunt. Why? Because these one-of-a-kind dolls are not for sale, according to the official Twitter account of Barbie.

As you might imagine, the Twittersphere is not happy — many are upset and see this as a faux equity gesture. But perhaps Mattel will reconsider if there is an overwhelming clamoring for these iconic Barbies to be commercially released. We hope they decide to bring the Celia Cruz and Julia Álvarez Barbies to market, because the Hispanic community deserves to see themselves represented beyond the tokenism of a one-of-a-kind doll.

About the author
An award-winning creator and digital health, wellness, and lifestyle content strategist—Karina writes, produces, and edits compelling content across multiple platforms—including articles, video, interactive tools, and documentary film. Her work has been featured on MSN Lifestyle, Apartment Therapy, Goop, Psycom, Yahoo News, Pregnancy & Newborn, Eat This Not That, thirdAGE, and Remedy Health Media digital properties and has spanned insight pieces on psychedelic toad medicine to forecasting the future of work to why sustainability needs to become more sustainable.